Themes

The American Dream

  • Is the capitalist belief that if you work hard enough you can be a success in America (the same is true for those of us living and working in Canada).
  • However, the success that the dream aspires to is based on money and power.
  • In Willy’s mind it is also linked with being “well-liked”.
  • Biff realizes that being true to yourself
    is a more important success.
  • Willy’s adherence to the dream means that he buys status symbols on credit that he cannot afford to keep the payments up on.  It is ironic then that Willy’s funeral is on the day that the
    last mortgage payment is made.
  • Howard’s treatment of Willy shows how destructive the pursuit of the dream can be.  He lays Willy off when he can no longer generate money for the company, which enrages Willy:
  • “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.”

Reality and Illusion

  • The gap between reality and illusion is blurred in the play – in the structure, in Willy’s mind and in the minds of the other characters.
  • Willy is a dreamer and dreams of a success that is not possible for him to achieve.  He constantly exaggerates his success: (“I averaged a hundred and seventy dollars a week in the year of 1928”) and is totally unrealistic about what Bill will be able to achieve, too.
  • Willy’s inability to face the truth of his situation, that he is merely a ‘dime a dozen’, rubs off on his sons.
  • Happy exaggerates how successful he is and Biff only realizes in Oliver’s office that he has been lying to himself for years about his position in the company: “I realized what a ridiculous lie
    my whole life has been.  We’ve been talking
    in a dream for 15 years.  I was a shipping
    clerk.”
  • Biff is the only one who realizes how this blurring of reality has destroyed them all.  His aim becomes to make Willy and the family face the truth, which they have been avoiding, the truth of who they are: “The man don’t know who we are! … We never told the truth for 10 minutes in this house.”
  • This blurring of reality and illusion is carried through into the structure.

Family

  • In the play, each generation has a responsibility to the other that they cannot fulfill.
  • Biff and Happy are shaped by Willy’s sins.
  • In Happy’s case, he is destined to repeat Willy’s values and strive for material success, where Biff has been destroyed totally by Willy’s betrayal of the family through the affair and the fact that Willy never discouraged him from stealing.
  • On the other hand, Biff and Happy have the opportunity to save Willy by becoming “successful” in his eyes and supporting him and Linda in their old age.  However, they are not able to do this because of the way they have been raised.
  • Biff is attempting to break this cycle of destruction in the family.

Nature and Physical Pursuits

  • In the play, the alternative to the corruption of urban capitalism is physical or natural pursuits.
  • Biff talks about working with horses or cattle on ranches as his calling.
  • Happy knows he can ‘outbox, outrun and out-lift anybody in that store’ and Willy ‘was a happy man with a batch of cement.’
  • The ‘Loman Brothers’ would sell sporting goods and Willy should have gone to the wilds of Alaska.
  • The suggestion is that the true nature of all three of these men would be in physical pursuits and in a rural setting.  However, Willy’s dependence on ‘the dream’ means they cannot follow their true calling.

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